John Dickson on reasons for belief

Christians are sometimes accused of holding their beliefs on blind faith and not based on reason. While there may be some justification for this accusation in some cases, is it true generally? On what basis do we form our beliefs?

In science, the ideal is that conclusions are drawn only when the evidence warrants them. Some people (most often non-believers) go on to argue that all beliefs should be based on available evidence, a philosophical viewpoint known as empiricism. Some go further and claim that only evidence that can be rigorously and scientifically tested is valid. The inference, of course, is that religious belief is not based on evidence (it is claimed) and therefore should be rejected.

What are christians to make of this? In this post I want to look at how people make their belief choices, and in later posts I’ll look at how christians do and should make their choices.

Studies of reason and belief

Some recent studies suggest few of us are as logical as we might think, as historian John Dickson reported in a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald. In one study, Brendan Nyhan of the University of Michigan and Jason Reifler of Georgia State University found that both politically conservative and liberal people tended to believe factual news stories that reinforced their viewpoints and disbelieve news stories which contradicted their viewpoints. (Not all that surprising, I guess, but interesting to see it confirmed.)

In other research, Thomas Gilovich, professor of psychology at Cornell University, found that both university students and academics believed themselves to be more successful that was the case – for example, 94 per cent of college professors thought they were doing a “better-than-average job” (when obviously only about half of them can do better than average).

Examples of ‘blindness’ to facts

Dickson then gives some examples where people commonly hold views contrary to the evidence. For example, religious and other conservative people tend to:

  • deny the growing evidence that physiological factors are behind sexual orientation; and
  • refuse to accept the strong scientific evidence that biological evolution has occurred.

Some readers may be uncomfortable with Dickson’s examples here, but they do illustrate that christians sometimes believe things that are not in accordance with science. We will discuss this in a subsequent post.

On the other hand, non-believers also tend to:

  • deny the strong evidence that religious believers are far more likely to give time and money to charities, preferring to argue that religion has a bad effect on people; and
  • hold that Jesus either never lived, or that the stories about him are legends, despite the fact that most historians, believer and unbeliever alike, accept that Jesus’ life “unfolded pretty much as the Gospels say it did”.

Why we believe

Dickson believes that the observations of ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, are still relevant today. Aristotle suggested there were three factors in coming to an opinion:

  1. logos – rational reasons, based on reality or evidence and perceived by our intellect;
  2. pathos – our emotional or psychological response, what attracts us or we hope is true;
  3. ethos – the social dimension – we tend to be more influenced by people we like and respect.

Implications

It is obvious that all these factors influence us to some degree, with different people more or less influenced by the different factors. But the question remains, what should we aim for? I am left with these thoughts:

  • I doubt any adult christian believes without reasons and evidence (logos) – whether these be the evidence of the gospels, a child’s belief based on the teaching of parents, an experience of God, or a sense that only God could have made the universe.
  • Believers and unbelievers alike are influenced by what we want to be true, what is attractive to us, and by the opinions of people we respect. It is better to recognise and account for these disparate influences than to deny them. We may want to try to help unbelievers see this is the case for them just as much as us.
  • We cannot ever know all the facts ourselves, and our intellects are not perfect. Sometimes we need to draw on the views of people we respect (ethos) – especially on God’s revelation.
  • When we rely on the guidance of the Holy Spirit, it may be seen as a form of pathos and ethos combined – though the Bible gives us some tests (logos) to ensure, as much as possible, that we only accept genuine guidance.
  • Recognition of all three factors seems to be a more human approach than isolating only reason.
  • Aristotle’s observations help to better understand that our belief is based on evidence and faith together, and the two are not opposed.
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